Tymoshenko: Ukrainian politics' longtime leading lady

Kiev (AFP) –


Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who on Tuesday announced she would run for president, came to international prominence during the Orange Revolution popular protests of 2004.

With her hair braided and wrapped over her head in a traditional peasant style, she became a recognisable face in the fight against voter fraud, corruption and a Kremlin-linked political elite.

But after 15 years -- three of which were spent as head of government and another three in jail -- the current poll favourite remains a highly divisive figure.

Since finishing as runner-up in the 2014 presidential race, the 58-year-old has largely spent her time criticising leader Petro Poroshenko from the sidelines.

Some fear she may have undisclosed ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who once called her the only person in Kiev he could work with.

But Tymoshenko says she wants to force Russia to compensate Ukraine for the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin-backed separatist uprising in the country's east that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 2014.

- 'Gas queen' -

Tymoshenko's resolve and gift for oratory has won comparisons with the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

The leader of the nationalist Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party was raised by a single mother in the mostly-Russian speaking industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk, now Dnipro.

She arrived on the national stage in the 1990s as head of a gas utility and became a deputy prime minister during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma at the turn of the millennium.

She was fired from the post after the two had a public falling out -- a theme that has repeated itself on several occasions during her political career.

Tymoshenko was then also briefly imprisoned on gas smuggling charges that were later quashed. But the incident gained her the nickname of "gas queen".

She made her comeback during the Orange Revolution protests which led to the annulment of elections initially awarded to pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych.

Revolution co-leader Viktor Yushchenko, whose face was disfigured by a poisoning while he was running against Yanukovych, won the election re-run and chose Tymoshenko as his prime minister.

But both she and current leader Poroshenko lost their positions in the government within a year following rifts in the cabinet.

She was re-appointed as head of government at the end of 2007 and served until 2010.

After suffering a narrow defeat in that year's presidential election to Yanukovych -- who by that time had himself made an unlikely comeback -- she faced a string of criminal investigations.

In 2011 she was handed a seven-year jail term for abuse of power that she and Western countries denounced as a case of selective justice.

She was released on February 22, 2014 -- the very day a fresh wave of pro-Europe uprisings finally led to Yanukovych's removal from power.

Confined at the time to a wheelchair with chronic back pain she allegedly developed in prison but which some diplomats privately acknowledged may have been faked, she was whisked to the centre of the Kiev protests.

But the reaction on the main stage much cooler than a decade earlier.

The crowd of more than 50,000 -- still shaken from the recent shooting of dozens of pro-Western unarmed teenagers by police snipers in Ukraine's worst bloodbath since World War II -- responded with jeers.

Later in 2014, a high-profile attempt to act as a peacemaker in Kiev's deadly confrontation with eastern Ukraine separatists backfired when rebels refused to receive her for talks.

- Shifting alliances -

Tymoshenko's detractors see the woman who made a fortune in murky post-Soviet state privatisations as an unscrupulous opportunist who lacks any ideals and shifts alliances to suit the latest political winds.

In 2016, Tymoshenko invited Nadiya Savchenko, a former combat pilot who spent around two years in a Russian prison and was then seen as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, to join her political party.

But Savchenko's fortunes went into dramatic reverse and she was jailed for allegedly plotting a terrorist attack. Analysts accused Tymoshenko of using the pilot to further her own interests.

As a fixture of the political scene for two decades, Tymoshenko might enjoy rare international recognition but enjoys no novelty value among Ukrainian voters.

"Her best political product is criticism of the current government," political analyst Mykola Davydyuk told AFP.

"Whether it's meaningful or not, that's what brings in the largest influx of electoral support."